Communicating in an Age of Anxiety

Leaders across higher education have had a daunting task since the presidential election: How do you help your community navigate through deep anxiety, polarized views, acts of bigotry and, in some cases, physical threats?

We have read many campus messages over the course of the last few days, as presidents and other university leaders begin this hard work with a backdrop of ugly racial and ethnic hate incidents sweeping across the country. Our campuses are facing backlash against conservative students, too, who feel labeled and judged.

When we feel most vulnerable, we look to our leaders to bring us together, reaffirm our values, reassure us and chart a course forward.  Though every campus has a unique culture, here are some general guideposts for communicating effectively during periods of great stress:

Underscore the community’s shared values even with the tensions they bring: Freedom of expression, open discourse, diversity and inclusion, and the fostering of an educational community in which everyone can thrive are fundamental to our universities. It is important to say that out loud, and can help leadership create realistic expectations about what must be protected in each of these spaces.

Double down on listening: Campus messages can only go so far, and too many will only diminish the effectiveness. Make a strong statement, and then do the harder work of investing a great deal of time in listening to the community. People need to be heard.

Stand strong against hate: Those who are targeted, and all of us, need to know that our universities do not tolerate hateful and racist acts, period. Express fierce commitment to protecting community members from physical harm especially. Make sure people know how to find the campus resources available to them in this context, from counseling to hate crime reporting.

Call for civil discourse, and model what that means. Bring people together to talk who don’t share one another’s views. Try to find some common ground. Get beyond the labels and charged language. There is deep pain on all sides that we need to understand much better than we now do.

Stress unity, and make sure inclusive really means everyone: We loved how President Angel Cabrera of George Mason University forcefully made this point in his campus message posted November 10:

Let me be clear:

If you are Muslim or Jewish or Christian, you belong at Mason.

If you grew up in Mexico City, Islamabad, or Roanoke, you belong at Mason.

If you are part of the LGBT community, you belong at Mason.

If you are Black or Brown or White, you belong at Mason.

If you voted for Clinton or for Trump or anyone else, you belong at Mason.


A few campus messages from across higher education:

George Mason University

Loyola University – Maryland

University of Chicago

University of Michigan

Wesleyan University

West Virginia University


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